It’s amazing what good public relations can do. And by “good” I mean fair and honest. Fortunately, the power-to-the-people shift brought about by corporate scandals, economic uncertainty and social media is forcing more and more public relations firms, professionals and departments to be that or be embarrassed … or finished. Unfortunately, the education most public relations professionals received, coupled with the company-first doctrine of the business world means most public relations, by nature, isn’t good. It’s spin.

The bothersome notion in all this is that many well-intended people, companies, organizations and political movements have not just fallen victim to good spin, but have exacerbated the problem by repeating it. When my friend and noble public relations professional Geoff Livingston recently told us (or more likely repeated an assertion that) fried chicken causes breast cancer, I shook my head at another unfortunate and unsuspecting victim of good spin doctoring.

For the record, obesity is frequently a predictive factor in breast cancer, not eating fried chicken. If someone eats too much fried chicken, they may very well become obese, but the person’s inability to eat in moderation is to blame, not the chicken. Geoff’s assertion is akin to saying Apple, Microsoft, Cisco and Dell cause Internet porn. And we all know Internet porn was invented by Tipper Gore. (Sorry. Too easy.)

spinning top
Image by Guy Fawkes via Flickr

Another example of a noble cause skewed by spin has duped a fair number of intelligent, well-intended people in my home community of Louisville. The Ohio River Bridges Project, a Federal transportation Mega-Project that would add two Ohio River spans and reconfigure the junction of I-71, I-64 and I-65 near downtown to address immediate and long-term traffic issues for our region, has been attacked for several years now by environmental and community activist groups. While the organizations who have criticized the project are well-intended and represent ideals that I would even endorse, they’ve duped a fair number of people in to believing an untruth.

Groups like 8664 and River Fields want you to think the States of Kentucky and Indiana and the Federal Highway Administration overlooked the environment and want to cover Louisville’s Waterfront Park with more highway concrete. The plans call for more lanes, but more efficient total concrete coverage; a higher traverse across the portion of the park currently under overpasses and less support columns (making that part of the park more open, bright and safe); and — oh, by the way — a potential expansion of the park by 50 acres at the project’s completion when that amount of land is turned over to the development organization that manages the park.

It’s frustrating to have conversations with people who think they’re in the know about the project only to discover their “know” comes from the spin (from perfectly good people, by the way) and not from investigating facts.

I’ve also recently been enlightened to my own misinformation from spin thanks to a client’s insistence on making me smarter. (Thank you, EMA!)

Think for a second about companies that make paper. Now think about your perception of them or perhaps what you’ve heard in the media about paper companies. Would it surprise you to know that no North American paper manufacturer uses trees taken from unethically deforested rain forests? Would it shock you to know that the North American paper and forest product industry plants four times as many trees as it harvests? (Think about it. If they didn’t, they’d eventually go out of business.) Most of the recycling trend was started by the paper industry and they continually increase the percentage of manufactured product that comes from recycled paper, not the other way around.

The paper and paper-based communications industry is probably more “green” and environmentally conscious than any other industry on earth, including the environmental lobby who wants to paint them as the bad guy. Yet all we hear these days is about how we need to move toward paperless communications and “save the earth, don’t print this email.”

If the paper industry dies, kids … it won’t help the environment.

Find more interesting factoids (with third-party attribution) here.

For the record, I admire Geoff Livingston for millions of reasons, the least of which certainly isn’t his passion for cause marketing. I don’t have issues with people protesting KFC for making fatty foods or even those who accuse them of pink-washing with their recent Komen donation drive (though I fully support anyone wanting to raise or donate money to fight cancer, regardless of how selfish their motivations are). I don’t have issues with people who have found fault with Komen’s methods, either.

I admire the ideals behind 8664 and love the fact River Fields serves as an environmental checks and balances organization for projects, public and private. In fact, I want to protect and preserve the environment, both in my community and our world in general, as much as anyone. I proudly recycle, even though I’ve heard rumors many local efforts are B.S. and your waste goes to landfills, not processing centers. I err on the side of conserving paper and gas. To my knowledge, I’ve never killed a three-toed sloth or clubbed a seal, either.

But what happened to us as a society that we’re so apt and willing to believe a one-sided story? When did self-directed decision-making leave our conscious?

Did “good” PR kill good PR? Is our ADD society producing droves of drones who’d rather accept the common thread rather than raise a hand and ask questions? Will the consumer-based marketplace reverse the trend or will the socially-adept extremes dictate popular belief?

Our politics (at least in the U.S.) have already become so polarizing the vast majority of us are disenfranchised. Will our conversations soon follow?

When it comes to public relations, this is what keeps me up at night. What about you?

Disclosure: I previously worked as a public affairs account manager for the Ohio River Bridges Project while on staff at Doe-Anderson. While this certainly reveals a bias on the issue, to the best of my knowledge, all of my assertions relative to the facts of the project can be found in publicly available documents related to the project, many of which are found at http://kyinbridges.com. I currently have no vested interest or involvement in the project or its support/protest groups other than I live in Louisville and support improving inter- and intra-state travel, traffic, safety, quality of life and environmental concerns in this region.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog and signature Explore events. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • UrbaneWay

    Jason, Good Morning
    PR is a fascinating craft, because folks really good at it know how to tap other folks emotions, but it is always about the money. If the money is standing on the “Right Side” as opposed to the “Wrong Side”, all is well, if not, well then various shades of gray ensue.

    PR “Rules of Engagement” have long been tossed out the window, and are hyper charged in the world of SM.

  • geoffliving

    That's an interesting interpretation of the conversation. Of course, most nonprofit cause folks thought I was corporate flack with that post. And the lack of accountability for the cause marketing – not PR — department in KFC and Komen in your post seems to miss another aspect of the holistic view. An interesting conversation.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks, Geoff. Yes, the conversation and all the different fingers of it are
      layered and complex, but your blog post still said fried chicken causes
      breast cancer. I am only using that one reference to illustrate the larger
      point of this post. It's not the KFC cause marketing that led you to write
      that. It was the PR spin the anti-KFC folks (or similar sources of rhetoric)
      have put on the world that led to it.

      • geoffliving

        Actually, Jason, per the post, the link and our private DM conversation about it, the information source is Komen. For your readers benefit the language and then the link: “The logic is that eating fried chicken causes weight gain, a pre-condition of breast cancer.”

        http://ww5.komen.org/BreastCancer/OverweightWei

        While Komen's facts may not be correct in your opinion, I'd like to keep a factual accounting of the discussion.

        • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

          Fair. Their logic is faulty, but your repeating it only amplifies my point.
          You repeated something that is at least a little spin-doctoring. There is no
          scientific link or evidence that shows that eating fried chicken causes
          breast cancer.

          • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

            Well, speaking of a little spin…. If we're looking to present a factual accounting of the discussion this language is also in Geoff's post:

            “So in my mind the ills in the KFC/Komen partnership lie with a faulty campaign that supports product — fried chicken — which causes breast cancer.”

            In addition, if you've read the research statement on weight gain and breast cancer you could also have just as easily said “Weight gain found to be protection against breast cancer” (pre-menopausal women who were overweight were found to have lower breast cancer risks). Thus using the same logic you could create an article that stated KFC fried chicken is helping to stop breast cancer. In both instances it's a slightly sensationalist usage of actual facts to try and make a point….regardless of whether that point is good/bad.

          • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

            Well done, sir. There's always an opportunity for spin. I just hope we can
            continue to be smart enough to see through it.

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    Well done, sir. There's always an opportunity for spin. I just hope we can
    continue to be smart enough to see through it.

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    Well done, sir. There's always an opportunity for spin. I just hope we can
    continue to be smart enough to see through it.

  • jeffespo

    Jason -
    These are great examples of spin gone bad. While they are extreme in some ways for the organizations it still goes back to the root of what spin is – lying. I am a PR pro and have done it on occasion, but how bad are lil white lies? If you are thinking as a parent, any lie is bad so why should it change as an adult?

    With KFC and McDonalds I always find it funny when they get involved with 5Ks and health programs. Instead of moderation, they mask the problem with some spin for good publicity. We can't be bad we spend millions on getting kids outdoors.

    Geoff makes a point about marketing, I'd counter that most PR teams live within the marketing org chart.

  • http://startups.com/ M_Dilli

    I agree with @jeffespo, there are some situations in which spin is taken to the extreme, and just like everything else, when taken to the extremes it simply goes bad. Besides, we should always bear in mind that there are a lot of different people that have different skills, knowledge and principles. Therefore, making generalization is not the best option.

  • @jaykeith

    This is an interesting topic, but to call out PR as the main culprit (they are one of many, for the record) I think it a little short sighted. The fact is that there are many, many groups that are spinning tales with their own take and their own agenda and trying to get what they perceive as the “correct” message out. This includes marketing (as you mentioned) but also media, and social media. How many times has something that appeared on Twitter been thought to be true, but an hour later we found out it isn't? It's not always the fault of a PR firm or agent.

    You mentioned the ADD world that we live in, well that's the kind of environment that's ripe for believing the first thing someone hears – be it from media, social media, marketing, word of mouth, etc. The truth is that everyone is spinning their own views and biases, it's up to the people consuming it to decide whether or not they want to believe it, or whether or not they want to do a little bit more research. (as you did with your several examples)

    You also mentioned another great medium for lies, spin, and inuendo, and that's politics. And considering there are many news networks dedicated to nothing but politics in this country and pushing one agenda or another, should a PR or marketing firm really be the ones to stand up and say, “wait a minute, we're only going to tell the unabashed truth here, not polish things up like everyone else.” I think that's a lot to expect, and a little naive. Advertising, marketing, PR, media, and now social media have always been and will always been based on people pushing certain objectives and agendas.

    I'm not sure why we're discussing how PR as an industry is the one tearing down the fabric of truth and justice at this moment. There's a lot of blame to go around, and it's been happening for a long, long time.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Fair points. But when I think of PR, I think of it in a very broad sense.
      Political communications consultants, crisis communicators, corporate comms
      … all PR. Perhaps it would be better stated to lump them into
      “communications professionals” but it's all the same to me. We get paid (I'm
      one, remember) to polish messages and keep our clients, companies, etc., on
      message. Social media is holding more people and companies to a level of
      honesty these days, but we still are apt to believe some one-sided position
      from a “trusted” professional or company without thinking about it or
      investigating facts. Yes, the public can adulterate a message and move it
      forward, too. But there's a big difference in a communications professional
      having a position/opinion/perspective and stating that perspective as fact.
      Just stuff that goes through my head.

      • @jaykeith

        Understood, and your clarification makes more sense. I'm curious where you would fall on advertising and marketing as “spin doctors” and getting a certain message (true or false) across. To Jeff's point, McDonald's actually pushes what many would consider to be unhealthy food, yet contributes to getting kids outside and advertises it's “healthy” options whenever and wherever it can. Many would argue that factually, even their healthy options aren't really healthy. Should that factor into this discussion as well? Just food for thought (no pun intended) in relation to accurate vs. inaccurate. Personally, I think it's all glossed with a fiction brush and it's up to the public consuming it to determine the actual facts. Sad, but true.

        • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

          Well, I would distinguish between advertising … paid messages known to be
          selling the product benefits … and PR or communications which are
          *supposed to be* more human, real and “official.” You don't turn to a
          company's ad to find out why they are letting thousands of gallons of oil
          leak into the Gulf. When a human being with the company … it's CEO or
          communications representative … is answering questions or speaking to
          define or defend the company position, that's where the spin doctoring can
          warp what the public perceives … if the public isn't smart enough to
          balance the perspective.

          I think companies should recognize other perspectives on the issue. But as
          communication professionals, we are taught to ignore them, at least when
          making statements or writing speeches, releases, etc.

  • @jaykeith

    Understood, and your clarification makes more sense. I'm curious where you would fall on advertising and marketing as “spin doctors” and getting a certain message (true or false) across. To Jeff's point, McDonald's actually pushes what many would consider to be unhealthy food, yet contributes to getting kids outside and advertises it's “healthy” options whenever and wherever it can. Many would argue that factually, even their healthy options aren't really healthy. Should that factor into this discussion as well? Just food for thought (no pun intended) in relation to accurate vs. inaccurate. Personally, I think it's all glossed with a fiction brush and it's up to the public consuming it to determine the actual facts. Sad, but true.

  • http://www.simonemyree.com Simone

    Jason, I want to commend you on a thoughtful post. I appreciate the time you take to craft quality content.

    Addressing the question, “But what happened to us as a society that we’re so apt and willing to believe a one-sided story? When did self-directed decision-making leave our conscious?”

    I think it started with the introduction of technology, mainly domestic. Most people didn't understand how the products worked or even how they were made. However, they were willing to accept the product and marketing premise because they saw a benefit for themselves and if the product worked or merely seemed impressive – so much the better.

    The flurry of new products and advances (including methods of communication) introduced advertising and marketing on a level not seen before. As technology advanced, it became more difficult for the average person to keep up with the science or knowledge behind all the changes and new information.

    Complex information on subjects not necessarily interesting to most people coupled with seductive and convincing marketing made it easy for people to believe. It still does. It was easier than reading, easier than learning, easier than exposing your ignorance and easier than taking time out of your day.

    Once you stop thinking critically, you're more likely to believe anything. It’s especially true if you think the person doing the communicating is smarter than you.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks Simone. Great thoughts here.

  • http://www.specialprayer.webs.com Heinrich

    Thank you for a very informative post. More often than not we tend to believe what we are told without investigating the information. This leads to misconceptions and can damage the reputation of innocent companies or people. The misconception around paper companies being a prime example. Your post made me think and changed the way that I look at information.

  • Eyelona

    Like my dad always said, “Ilona, perception is one's own reality.”

    So, “good PR” is only good PR if it's in line with the recipient's beliefs and values. I don't think we'll ever get away from that.

    What will change however, is the corporate perception of PR. I think social media is driving a shift in the traditional anti-social behavior of companies (one-to-many or even “one-sided”), and forcing businesses to really listen to the crowd, and engage with them to educate, help or to even change the perception of their products/services (one-to-one).

    Like you said, “what happens if we're willing to believe a one-sided story?” There are two-sides to every story and those two-sides need to reside in the same place, so consumers can make informed decisions. Hence, the importance of brands' participation in conversations. Just my 2 cents.

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